The appointment of the UK foreign secretary quashes the importance of political responsibility
As senior duty minister, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is currently in charge of running the country during Theresa May’s holiday in Switzerland. His already eventful career as journalist, politician and public figure has thus taken yet another turn, although the omnipresent and media-savvy Bojo (as he is casually known) decided not to stand for the party leadership after repeatedly and vociferously proclaiming that Britain would be better off outside the EU. Together with fellow Tory politician Michael Gove and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, Johnson was not only among the most visible campaigners, he was also widely believed to become Britain’s next prime minister.
Johnson’s biographer Sonia Purnell, who wrote Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, saw his seemingly inexorable “march to Downing Street” begin as far back as 2014 when she wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian. Yet, it was Johnson himself who recently gave his supporters a surprise when he decided not to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party after David Cameron’s resignation. This could very well have been the unglamorous end of a once promising career of one of the most iridescent characters in contemporary European politics. However, the modern Proteus was to rise again under the auspices of the new prime minister, Theresa May.
Well-read and classically educated, Johnson would likely appear in front of the next microphone or camera with his characteristically mischievous and boyish smirk upon hearing such a comparison. Proteus, an ancient Greek god of fluvial and maritime bodies of water, is capable of predicting the future if he can be caught. But just as the natural element he represents, Proteus constantly changes his shape in order to avoid any questions about the future whatsoever. Homer’s hero Menelaos, King of Sparta, an important character in both the Iliad and Odyssey, is one of the lucky few ever to have got hold of him. By virtue of the god’s shape shifting abilities, the adjective ‘protean’ has come to mean ‘versatile’, ‘mutable’ and ‘ever-changing’ but also carries connotations of ‘inconsistency’, ‘volatility’ and ‘fluctuation’. While adaptability and quickness of mind are laudable, if not essential, in holders of public office, the postmodern evisceration of the language of political responsibility has made possible such careers as that of Boris Johnson. Despite having unleashed a whole barrage of insults on friend and foe alike in the recent past, May appointed him foreign secretary in her new cabinet. Johnson’s protean talent for personal (re-)invention notwithstanding, his long record of journalistic and media blunders quickly proved a millstone around his neck.
Immediately after taking office, Johnson held his first press conference as foreign secretary alongside US secretary of state John Kerry. Asked by a persevering journalist about his past insults and “outright lies”, Johnson was, according to Patrick Wintour, “embarrassingly forced onto the back foot”. As Johnson awkwardly tried to stand his ground, he responded by saying that his comments had been “misconstrued”, his “journalism taken out of context” and world leaders signalled they “fully understood” his remarks. Only a little later, the former London mayor jumped to an unfounded, and ultimately unjustifiable conclusion when he blamed the shooting in Munich, in which 10 people died, on Islamist terrorists. Boris being Boris, he delivered the remedy for what he chose to call a “global sickness” in the same breath: the problem needs to be tackled “in the areas where the cancer is being incubated in the Middle East”. Unfortunately for Boris, the shooter, who killed himself before being caught by the police, turned out to be a German-Iranian teenager harbouring a fierce hatred for (Muslim) foreigners. What is more, Ali David Sonboly felt inspired by the Norwegian right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik, committing his shooting rampage on the fifth anniversary of the Oslo and Utoya massacres. Instead of waiting for verified news and background information from the Bavarian capital, Johnson dropped another brick by embarrassing not only himself, but also the office he holds.
Facts, it seems, matter little these days. In an article written for Granta magazine, Peter Pomerantsev goes even further, claiming that we are living in a “post-fact” or “post-truth” world. In this world, politicians and media, Pomerantsev argues, do not merely habitually lie as they have always done, they simply “don’t care whether they tell the truth or not”. The truth, facts and evidence are merely ballast in this postmodern game of arbitrariness and relativism: “There is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts – those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations…”. Both Johnson’s career and public image are perfectly in keeping with this trend “which has trickled down over the past thirty years from academia to the media and then everywhere else”.
Of course, this brand of postmodernism is only a crudely reductive version of what used to be a ground-breaking departure from bequeathed wisdom, that took place in the humanities from the late-1960s onwards. In its early stages, postmodern philosophy enabled iconoclasts from a wide range of backgrounds to test received knowledge and break the seemingly unassailable aura of tradition. In conceptual terms, it was no less revolutionary than Marx’s philosophy had been a century earlier. Tragically enough, however, it eventually degenerated into a vehicle for anti-modern recidivism, fostering a climate in which we are led “into echo chambers of similar-minded people, feeding us only the things that make us feel better, whether they are true or not”, as Pomerantsev puts it. It is almost as if the Enlightenment endeavours to comprehend the world in rational terms, had never seen the light of day. Accordingly, Islamist terrorism has become a shorthand solution for attacks in the public domain. Reframing such attacks when the evidence suggests otherwise seems too cumbersome for agents in the public sphere, as Johnson’s premature judgement demonstrates.
In a recent article, Jonathan Freedland expressed his concerns about Theresa May’s doubtful choice, contending that “by making Johnson our public face we have made insult our official response” to global, and especially European, challenges. In both arenas, Johnson’s past articles, columns and public statements will continue to haunt him. While many progressive commentators and voters are genuinely outraged as a consequence of his appointment, his past comments on Africa have been particularly offensive. In a series of articles written in 2002, Johnson fired several neo-colonial broadsides at this continent. In the Telegraph, he infamously described African children as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, while in a Spectator article a month later, Africa’s central problem was the absence of British colonial rule – “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”
The mutually reinforcing triangle of Britain’s imperial hangover, dangerously nostalgic jingoism and unquestioned white privilege makes possible such borderline racist statements, which are unbecoming of a cabinet minister. But our readiness to accept buffoons in our midst is part of the problem in this age of ephemeral media attention and its need to produce eventful, even shocking, news stories. If Johnson had a shred of decency left, he would at once apologise for his outrageously ignorant remarks and resign in order to make way for a chief diplomat deserving of this post.
Photo Credit: Ben Pruchnie / Getty Images
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